Shirley Shahan is the first woman to win an NHRA event in a pro class. While that’s a drag racing milestone and represents a legendary accomplishment, especially in 1965 when drag racing was completely dominated by men, if that’s all you know about her life then you only know the easy part. Known as the “Drag-On-Lady” with then-husband HL Shahan, who tuned her cars, she was also working full time raising three children, as well as participating in another sport she loved; fast pitch softball. Softball developed her upper body, which helped slamming a 4-speed in the quarter-mile. Racing every weekend in the 1950s with her kids in tow, she won the first Bakersfield March Meet in 1959 with her 4-speed 1958 Chevy in a Super Stock field of 40 men. By the mid-1960s she was racing for Plymouth full-time. A woman winning races in those pre-women’s lib days did not always go over well with the competition, and she was winning a lot of races. Switching to AMC products in 1968, she represented the company both on and off of the track, as her novelty status and winning ways brought attention to the company. With AMC funding diverted away from drag racing in 1972, and with a chance for HL to build racing engines full-time, Shirley’s drag racing career ended. Also in 1972 another Shirley came on the national drag racing scene. Shahan’s racing career included both AFX altered-wheelbase nitro cars, and also Super Stock, becoming Pro Stock in 1970. She’s now retired from her over 30 years with the So Cal Gas Company, travelling and enjoying life with her second husband of almost 40 years, Ken. In 1997 she was inducted into the Drag Racing Hall of Fame, and in 2005 she received the NHRA Lifetime Achievement Award.
HR] There’s a rumor you were racing while you were eight months pregnant?
SS] I don’t know that I was eight months pregnant but I was pretty pregnant.
HR] Do you still follow Pro Stock today?
SS] Yes. Some of the cars that were on top of Pro Stock this year were not last year since the change to fuel injection. I watch the races on TV and still have a few favorites like Erica, who was on top last year, and now she’s on the bottom. But yeah, I still watch it.
HR] Do you miss participating in drag racing?
SS] I don’t miss it until I can smell the fumes and tires and clutches-then I miss it because those smells bring back a lot of good memories. For so many years after I remarried I didn’t have anything to do with racing. Then when the nostalgia stuff started happening people got interested in me again and then I got interested again, especially going back to the American Motors national events I was invited to speak at. I had no idea people were interested in stuff that happened in the 1960s. It was fun back then-I don’t know how it is today but back then it was a lot of fun. I know they talk about being one happy family today, but it just can’t be like it was back then, there’s just too much money involved now.
HR] How did you get involved with Chrysler as one of their factory Super Stock drivers?
SS] We raced a 1956 Chevy, then a 1958 and a 1963 that we raced. Then (then husband) HL (Shahan) was working for Ronnie Broadhead (Junior Stock) and then Butch Leal. Then HL went to work for Hank Taylor in Texas that gave HL more national exposure. Hank first got a 1964 Max Wedge Plymouth, and then Chrysler gave him a Hemi Plymouth in the spring. They came to me at the end of 1964 and asked if I would drive for them. I think it was a combination of hearing that I could drive, and they wanted someone on the west coast for exposure in this territory. We didn’t pursue them. When we got our car Butch got his too, so we were a team. We were both out of Visalia, California. Butch drove the stick shift car and me the automatic. Butch ran his Chevy out of our shop in Tulare; in fact we had 5-6 cars running out of our shop. So we continued for one year as a team.
HR] You always drove 4-speeds but then Chrysler wants you to go with an automatic. Did you transition well to racing with an automatic?
SS] It was OK. What I had to adapt to was driving by a tach, because I had never driven that way with the 4-speeds. Instead I always drove by ear-we didn’t have tachs. Dick Maxwell at Chrysler said I’d have to drive with the tach and I told him, “But I’ve never driven with a tach before.” For me it was looking at something rather than hearing something that was so different, but it didn’t take long to adjust to it. Maxwell thought I couldn’t handle a stick shift car so I had to live with that.
HR] When you started racing for Chrysler you had a full time job at So Cal Gas Company, and three kids in tow. How did you manage all of that?
SS] When we got the 1965 Plymouth I was running NHRA Division 7, so a lot of times when races were in Oregon, Washington or Utah, I would get off work early on Friday and we’d drive all night long. Sometimes we would fly, and then when the races were over on Sunday drive all night long so I could get to work on Monday. Sometimes we’d bring the kids with us, or my Mother-in-law would babysit and watch them. If it was more local then we would bring them. They grew up at the races-they loved the races. I’ve got pictures of Janet when she was two posing with the trophies. Steven, our youngest, was helping at the shop when he was 10.
HR] Did any of your kids get the racing bug?
SS] My youngest Steven crewed with Ed McCulloch for a few years when he was a teenager, and then he crewed with another Funny Car team I don’t remember the name of. He also did off-road racing competitively until two years ago when the cars were sold. Today he has a T-shirt silkscreening and embroidery business doing a lot of local racecar, boat, and flat track stuff. My son Robert has a replica of my 1968 Dart he races. My daughter Janet and her husband have a four-engine Hemi Unlimited Tractor Pull called Git-R-Done, sponsored by Lucas Oil. She hasn’t been home in two months, which reminds me of myself back in the racing days. So all of my kids got into racing in one form or another.
HR] And what is the Great-Grandchild count these days?
SS] You don’t want to know. (Counting) I think 27 great grandchildren between my husband Kenny and myself.
HR] Could you foresee so many women getting into drag racing as have in the last few years?
SS] It’s interesting how they arrived. Of course you have John Force, and his girls were raised on it. Then you have others that got in through Junior Dragsters. But it’s good because it’s something they can do just as well as the men can, if they’ve got the right equipment and the money to go along with that. Back when I first raced we had all of these buckled drag strips that we don’t have today, so they come into it from different avenues.
HR] How did your racing exploits go from private to corporate?
SS] When I won the Winternationals in 1966 I was getting phone calls asking me to come back east to match race. I got so many calls we had to make a decision, and that’s when I decided to quit my job at the Gas Company, about two months after winning the Winternationals
HR] Why did you go from Chrysler to American Motors?
SS] When we switched to American Motors in 1969 the LA Dealers Association sponsored us, and they wanted us to mainly run in LA and California, other than national meets. Since we were local I was able to go back to the Gas Company part time. We got a salary from American whereas we got the car and parts from Chrysler but that was all. From American I got a personal car to drive, along with the racecar and all the parts we needed, and a salary, plus I got to stay home which was good because the kids were getting bigger and had school related functions they needed to be around home for. And I got to race a 4-speed again.
HR] How did you first get started in drag racing?
SS] When I was in high school my dad raced jalopies and I was the oldest child, so I was the one to hand him the wrenches and so forth. I was his crew chief (laughs). I was always mechanically inclined-I took an aptitude test in the 9th grade and it said I should be a mechanic. I would use my dad’s Studebaker pickup to drag Main. I learned how to shift with that truck. Then when HL and I got married we had the 1956 Chevy we raced, and I would occasionally drive it. I guess I was a natural-maybe because I’m ambidextrous. In softball I’d pitch left handed but bat right handed; and I golf right handed, too.
HR] These were still the early days of the sport, and this was in and around the sparsely populated San Joaquin Valley of Central California. What was drag racing like back then?
SS] We had a lot of races here in the San Joaquin Valley. We raced in Madera and Visalia, and of course Bakersfield, Porterville, Dinuba Rosa had a track, too. Up north we had Fremont, Half Moon Bay, and Santa Maria. We had a race to go to every weekend, there were so many.
HR] Once you became popular you started doing a lot of match racing across the country. Were you setting those up or how did you work into the barnstorming?
SS] We knew Rick Lynch, who went to work for Gay Pontiac booking cars for Donny Gay in Texas. So the first year we hired him to book races for us. After that first year I got the phone numbers for the drag strips we raced at, and we had met a lot of people on the road, so then I started doing the bookings myself. I didn’t ever work with bringing other drivers to the races I just worked with the promoters at the different drag strips. Some strips would put us against a Ford, then a Chevy, and then a Chrysler. Other strips might put us against Dick Landy, or just some of the better local racers. Then in places like Wisconsin they would have a huge 4th of July race and everyone would be paid to come into that race because it was so big. We’d work the match racing around the national meets, but there weren’t that many back then. I tried to plot it out but when Lynch was booking for us we might have a race in Chicago on Saturday night, and then a race in Detroit the next day, so we would have to drive all night to get there. But we raced every weekend. I liked both the match racing and national events, but the thing about running Division 7 Super Stock, it was starting to get into the ET brackets and I didn’t like that. I didn’t like that if you went too fast you broke out of your bracket.
HR] You also drove AFX altered wheelbase cars with nitro, too?
SS] On the 1965 car we would swap out the intake for injectors, and move the rear wheels forward four inches and run it like that for match races. Then, when we’d go to a national meet we would put the carburetors back on and move the wheels back to be Super Stock legal. The fastest I went was around 9.80 at 148 with the Pro Stock Hornet.
HR] With the kids mostly grown and you being out of racing what did you do?
SS] In 1975 when I went back to the Gas Company I got into management. When I retired I had seven supervisors working for me and over 100 employees, and a six million dollar budget. It was as high as I could go in the division without having to transfer to LA. They started downsizing in 1990 so I retired. Kenny and I both retired about the same time and we travelled in our RV and started work camping. We worked in the stores at places like Yellowstone Park as clerks after the college kids would quit to go back to college. Then we worked at Ponderosa Ranch in Lake Tahoe for nine seasons, helping at the stagecoach lines and with the horses. Closer to home we help put on the car show at our local church to help underprivileged children. We also volunteer for the Agriculture show in Tulare for three months, and we sing for the Turkey Transit Trolley, which uses donations for Visalia emergency aid. I’m also putting together everything from my racing days for the local Tulare Historical Museum archives, which will do an exhibit some time in the future.
HR] Was drag racing the only racing you did?
SS] I drove in the Mobil Economy Runs for Chrysler in 1966, 1967 and 1968. We’d drive from LA to Boston, or LA to Detroit. In 1968 we were supposed to drive to New York but there were riots after Martin Luther King had been killed so we ended up in Indy and called it there. The first year I got a second in my division, the second year my car malfunctioned and I only got a fourth, but the last year I won my class. I got a letter from the VP of Chrysler thanking me. I had beaten another professional driver, Scott Harvey, who was driving a car similar to mine that was a Plymouth-I was driving a Dodge. They would get over 50 cars and drivers, and lay out a detailed route you were expected to finish based on their estimated times. The navigator would compute the time and route. There were three people in the car, a driver, navigator, and official that monitored you so you didn’t run stop signs or go over the double yellow lines-stuff like that. They had a gas tank that measured your gas mileage within a thousandth of a gallon. It was hard, and I think I’m as proud of that win as my drag racing because I had to do it on my own.
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